ASIAN ART STORIES: Chinese Snuff Bottles
From 31 August to 20 October 2021, seven Chinese snuff bottles from agate, jade and glass will be exhibited at the Art Museum RIGA BOURSE in Riga (Doma laukums 6) as a part of the exhibition series “Asian Art Stories”. It is a Chinese art form, which is praised as Chinese art in miniature.

Snuff was already used widely in Europe in the early 16th century and if we look back at history, many world-famous personalities at the time were infatuated with it – English queen Charlotte, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Charles Darwin, Napoleon Bonaparte, Abraham Lincoln and others. European missionaries introduced the Beijing court to tobacco around the end of the 16th century, but during the Qing dynasty (1644–1912) tobacco was forbidden. Only snuff or powder tobacco was permitted as it was considered that it had healing properties and it was carried in little bottles just like other medicines. In China, snuff use was a hobby of the elite, just like in Europe and the spread of snuff and its bottles began among the imperial court.


The snuff bottles replaced the snuffboxes used in Europe. Their form was most likely borrowed from Chinese medicine bottles, but it is also possible that the Europeans themselves had already provided a specific way of storing tobacco for this region, which the Chinese then adapted to their understanding of beauty and practical use. The small-sized bottle with its narrow neck and stopper was the best solution for snuff to retain the required consistency and aroma for a longer time in high humidity.


Various materials were used to make the bottles – porcelain, jade, ivory, wood, lazurite, malachite, quartz, metal, lacquer, turquoise, agate, mother-of-pearl, ceramic, and others, but most frequently – glass. Layered glass bottles, inside painted bottles and bottles carved from agate and jade are stored in the museum collection. Traditional Chinese forms of art were used in the time-consuming process of making the bottles as well as the storylines that were already popular in painting, porcelain, lacquerware, jade, enamel, and other items. For this reason, snuff bottles are often described as Chinese art in miniature.


As these bottles were an important component of life during the Qing dynasty, they portray the visual language, people’s habits and values of this time. The scenes depicted on them most often include a secret meaning that was essential to the owner of the specific bottle, and as a consequence, many of the stories cannot be fully translated nowadays. On the museum collection bottles you can read a popular Tang dynasty (618–907) poem, see mountain and river landscapes, as well as various known Chinese culture characters such as dragon, carp, lotus, plum blossoms etc.


Exhibition introduces the visitors not only with the history of Chinese snuff bottles and how they were acquired by the museum, but also about different techniques to make them. Each bottle type has a specific way how to make them. China Cultural Centre has prepared videos with inside painted bottle and carved bottle technique nowadays, but the extensive annotations explain how these techniques developed and what is depicted on each museum collection bottle.


The exhibition series Asian Art Stories produced by the Art Museum RIGA BOURSE encourages to discover and understand certain artworks, techniques, functions as well as their philosophical, religious, cultural, and contextual significance. Western viewers have always been fascinated with the Asian art by its extraordinary form, technique and aesthetic view. The Asian Art Collection of the Latvian National Museum of Art has several thousand artworks from different Asian countries, however, only part of them are exhibited in the Asian Art Gallery of the Art Museum RIGA BOURSE. By showing one artwork or a group of objects, within the exhibition series, we will discover these exceptional stories that often remain unheard.


Text by Kristīne Milere



The project was implemented with the support of the State Culture Capital Foundation of Latvia (SCCF) within the programme Creation of Future Cultural Content in All Cultural Sectors in order to reduce the impact of Covid-19.



Kristīne Milere, Exhibition Curator, Art Museum RIGA BOURSE / Latvian National Museum of Art

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